A League of Rivals

December 26, 2017

by Chris Knetzer

What if I told you that Justice League is the most interesting movie of 2017?

WAIT! COME BACK! I can explain!

When a filmmaker has a distinct and consistent visual style, specifically one that attracts a cultish fan base, we call them an auteur. When a writer has a strong consistent voice, specifically one that attracts a cultish fan base, we call them an author. Both are seen as semi-divine forces, a being of singular vision who wills their Art into creation. The sensibilities and values of these creators inevitably shine through their work. What would happen, then, if two wildly different god figures, with fundamentally and diametrically opposed styles and world views, became trapped in the same project?

First, we have to talk about Zach Snyder. He is, first and foremost, an Objectivist (Click the link, I’ll wait). Got it? Yeah, the hyper-masculinity and contempt for the disabled in 300 suddenly makes a lot more sense, right?

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Even more alarming is his treatment of Superman in Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman. In Snyder’s eyes, he is the personification of a proud, free, unrestrained man, and by extension the personification of a proud and unrestrained America. Government bureaucrats try to control him, and other powerful but lesser (Bat)men who don’t understand him try to tear him down, but there is a threat that can only be answered with rugged individualism and raw lethal force, consequences and collateral damage be damned. At the end of BvS, Superman is killed fighting Doomsday, thus proving his virtue in the most dramatic way possible. Now the world would have to face the consequences of a world – without him. He got to be crucified AND prove the world wrong all in one! It’s the climax of the perfect white male persecution fantasy.

In the introduction to Justice League, the implications and imagery of a world without Superman is unmistakably taking its cues from convicted felon Dinesh D’Souza’s “speculative documentary” America: Imagine The World Without Her. Therein, he justifies any and all wrongdoing by the United States by depicting our world without the influence of its might; a violent world without structure or morality. From this introduction we can see the trajectory of the entire film: The restoration of the world through the restoration of power, the restoration of America.

Except, the scene I just described as the introduction is NOT the first scene we see in Justice League. Instead, the first scene we see is grainy cell phone footage captured by two small children who spoke to Superman before he died. In it, smiling and patient, Kal-El answers these excited children’s questions, including what the ‘S’ stands for. Hope. It stands for hope. Superman stands for hope. This scene, so incongruous with everything we’ve seen of the sneering and contemptuous Superman from the previous two films, completely changes the meaning of the introduction and the trajectory of the entire film. Suddenly it’s not his power that is missing, it’s the hope that he represented. Why is that first scene there? What happened that allowed this funny but seemingly superfluous scene to undercut the themes so consistent through all of Zach Snyder’s work?

What happened was Joss Whedon. Initially brought on as a writer to help punch up dialogue and lighten the heavy tone in the reshoots, Whedon would take over directing duties after Snyder’s daughter died and he was forced to leave the project. This left the final edit of the film in the hands of our Author, a man whose skill with dialogue influenced an entire generation of writers who followed him but whose track record with action is questioned by no one more than himself.

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The resulting film is less a chimera blend of styles and direction, and more akin to the ape and tuna P.T. Barnum stitched together and declared ‘a mermaid’. The bulk of Snyder’s original God’s Amongst Men narrative survives, but is constantly being recontextualized by crudely blocked insert scenes of a frightened Barry Allen needing to be coaxed into heroism, or a battered and reflective Batman admitting that the everyday struggles of Clark Kent make Superman more human than pampered and damaged Bruce Wayne will ever be. The editing done to make room for these scenes is savage and unmistakable, with whole scenes cut from the narrative and not an establishing shot or transition to be found. The tone does not blend (nor does the deeply unsettling CGI face replacement used to hide Henry Cavil’s mustache in the reshoots). The real war is between the director and the editor, between power and hope. The ostensible villain Steppenwolf is barely an afterthought.

You’ll remember that the main point of these reshoots was to raise the profile of Wonder Woman, and in that goal Whedon failed. Despite bringing Buffy the Vampire Slayer into our lives, Joss’s weakness in handling strong women characters in ensemble films shows, as it did with the treatment of Black Widow in his last big budget superhero outing, Avengers 2. Wonder Woman’s “bigger role” consists mostly of her listening to Batfleck wax poetic on the nature of hope and the demands of leadership, while also criticising her in very condescending terms for not stepping up to lead in the first place. The recently leaked script Whedon had written for Wonder Woman once upon a time shows that while he may deeply understand Superman in a way Snyder never could, neither of them should be allowed within arms reach of Patty Jenkins’ Diana.

Look, I know, this isn’t a GOOD movie. Not at all. It barely has all of the parts necessary to call it a movie. That said, it is nonetheless a fascinating specimen of intents, subversions, tones, and styles fighting for place within a single cultural work. Love it or hate it, film students will be studying this for years, recounted prominently in textbook chapters titled “Death of the Auteurs” and “Editing for Dummies”. I’m not promising you’ll like it, I’m not promising good times, but I am promising that if you give this mess a chance, it will definitely surprise you.

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